Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Technology as a Means of Control

[Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes]
[Mood: Reflective]

I wrote about the perils of technology in one of my earliest blog posts where I talked about how technological advances have left much destruction in their wake and how some of the newer technologies being proposed today are targeted at cleaning up the mess left behind by earlier technologies. But what is technology really?

I have come to think of Technology as a means of control. This isn't how I used to think of it. Nothing in my life, neither my education nor my career, neither my parents nor my teachers, neither the television nor the newspapers prepared me to think of technology this way. The word "technology" almost always had a positive ring to it. It often goes together with and is placed right next to other words of similar positive connotations like progress, development and advancement. Technological achievements are correlated with developed countries, prosperous societies and modern cultures. Conversely, the lack of technological sophistication goes together with third world countries, primitive societies and cultures and "backwardness" and often carries with it a certain stigma. It's not so easy to view technology in a different light than what has been presented to us all our lives.

The word "technology" conjures up images of freeways, fancy gadgets and Facebook and makes it hard to think of it in terms of control. Perhaps I should use different terminology but that would keep us from seeing technology for what it really is: the ability to control nature or the ability to control one's own circumstances. There is really no distinction between controlling nature and controlling our own circumstances because human beings are very much part of nature despite their inclination to think otherwise. Our circumstances are natural in so far as the human condition is natural. Controlling our circumstances amounts to controlling nature. After I began seeing technology this way, it became more and more evident over time that the manifestations of technology that I was coming across on a daily basis (the latest breakthroughs in genetic engineering, nano technology, medicine and robotics) have an underlying motivation of control.

When human beings settled into the first agricultural villages, technologies of various kinds had helped us to, initially, adapt to settled life (coming from thousands of years of nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles), and later, to alter our environment and thrive in it. As normal as that sounds, it points to a necessity and even a certain craving for control over our surroundings, our environment, the ecology that we're an integral part of and our very human condition. This isn't a value judgment but an observation on what has happened and what continues to happen. The need for control has implications on all facets of life and even touches upon existential questions. Control goes hand in hand with fear because it's fear in a variety of forms that discourages us from going with the flow and encourages us to take control of circumstances.

My friend, Sven, has written a thoughtful article on our relationship with technology that underscores some of these aspects that are not always obvious.

We live in highly predictable artificial environments. Modern technology relies on itself to provide itself a certain minimum amount of predictability without which it cannot function effectively. The Internet wouldn't be nearly as useful or ubiquitous without reliable, always-on electricity in place, for example. In the same vein, modern technology habituates us into expecting more predictability in our lives. There's little room for serendipity and chance encounters in a life dependent on the smartphone and other gadgets that have come to dominate us today. Control and fear are two sides of the same coin. Technology comes to our rescue when we become fearful of our circumstances, whether we're lost in the middle of a busy city or worry about a river flooding our home next year. More often than not, such fears are artificially introduced into our minds. Human societies have lived in harmony with nature for hundreds of thousands of years and we'd developed a keen sense for what nature is telling us. The fear of the flood is an artifact of civilization. And the fear of being lost in a city is an artifact of modern living. In both cases, we attempt to control our circumstances with the aid of technology.

Control takes many forms. When settled life began about 10,000 years ago, it was almost always about survival. But over time, some societies, but not all, started deploying technologies not just to ensure safety and security, but for more overt control. To bend our environment into shape to meet our needs and later, our greed, our fancies and pleasures speaks to this overarching theme of control. We're exhorted by our leaders, our schools and universities, our workplaces and other institutions to "rise above our circumstances". Rising above our circumstances naturally tends to assume a positive connotation and modern society provides us means to overcome our circumstances. The means may be different for each of us but technology helps us everywhere and facilitates control.

To be sure, not all of us participate in societal decisions that lead to deployment of technologies and hence control. So when I use "we", "humanity", and other collective terminology, it's not necessarily you and me. It's those of us who hold power and control vast resources, the billionaires among us, the leaders among us. It's they who are primarily responsible for making decisions on which kinds of technologies will be developed by society and for what purposes. Often, and especially in our age, technologies are deployed by the few for direct and overt control of the very populations that help make them a reality. The software engineer who works on face recognition technologies makes it possible for the authorities to spy on his own children. So control is not just about human control over nature but control of man over man. In a way, this is not really distinct from control over nature because man is "of" nature, man belongs to nature. Again, to be more precise, some of us are closer to nature than some others and in this regard, the dominion over nature extends smoothly into dominion over fellow man. In real terms, it takes the form of oppression and genocide of indigenous and tribal peoples of the planet because among all human beings, these peoples are the closest to nature. In many ways, they are part of nature. They live in nature, they live off of nature and meld smoothly with it. Nature offers them for free everything they need to lead a satisfying life. These peoples suffer first and suffer most when those of us who are more insulated from nature oppress and control nature.

The only exception that comes to mind when I think of all the uses that technology can be put to is when we use technology for artistic or aesthetic pursuits but such uses are far and few between and form but a few drops in the vast sea full of other motivations. More often, it's been to overcome our natural limitations which amounts to controlling our circumstances. Modern technologies, especially, illustrate this aspect of control: the airplane allows us to do something we weren't meant to do but we've overcome the limitation of flight that birds are not subject to, the telephone allows us to do something we weren't meant to do but we've overcome the limitation of long-distance communication and electricity, likewise, provides us with instant access to nearly unlimited amount of power which again is a good example of thorough ascendancy of humanity over its circumstances. The trouble is, once set in motion, it's almost impossible to stop technological advancement. So while, there doesn't seem to be much, if anything, misplaced about our desire to fly, to communicate and to power our devices with electricity, there comes a point in time when the very foundations of technology are threatened by its relentless advancement. We must not forget that every ounce of technology relies on the ecology and the Earth that hosts the ecology. The Earth provides critical minerals like Coltan without which we wouldn't have smart phones. The massive data centers that power the Internet need enormous amounts of electricity which come from dams, coal or other natural sources. The single most important Earth resource that has been a crucial piece of this foundation to technological advancement over the last 100+ years and continues to be is oil and gas. We live in the times when this foundation is being eaten away at a rapid pace. The ecological foundation that technology rests upon also serves as a foundation for life and life on the planet is currently under threat. The threat, again, comes from our need to control, and more precisely, the need of a fraction of human beings to control nature and the rest of us, with technology assisting them at every step.

The way technology, or man's inclination to control his circumstances, seems to work is that such control is not one-sided. The more we try and control our circumstances (by controlling our environment, the nature we're part of and even fellow human beings), the more circumstances end up controlling us. The more we treat nature as a machine amenable to modification, the more we treat ourselves and each other as machines. Today, we find ourselves at a point where the most prized and valuable members of our society, the bankers, computer scientists, businessmen, politicians, bureaucrats, and other leaders are also the same people who are most machine-like. Some of them are machine-like in the sense that they are rational, logical and scientific and some in the sense that they don't have much of a conscience.

What seems to be happening is that we're less emotionally resilient at both the individual and collective level. At the individual level, dependence on technology makes it difficult to be fully human and causes much suffering and at the collective level, technology is leading us into enormous global problems that are so intractable all the more because the individuals comprising the collective are already occupied with their own suffering that they're going through at a personal level.

When we think of technology, the things that come to mind are the Internet, the smart phone, and other examples of consumer technology. With this different definition of technology as a means of control. consumer technology comes in at just the fringes of a wide web of core technologies that have deep foundations. Technology is generally created, developed and used first by the military. Business soon finds ways to use technology and finally it trickles down to the common man. The military and business are much more effective at deriving the benefits of technology and what gets passed on to the masses are the means of control sugar-coated with so-called "features". Like Sven brings to our attention (and this is something hardly anyone ever notices), for all the excitement around the consumer technologies of recent years, all we have to show are small ways to help us navigate an alien world. Alien because it's almost entirely artificial. Finding a place to sleep, asking help from a neighbor, finding one's way back home, keeping in touch with family were never a problem for human beings until recently. When I was in India last March, I saw a poor old woman riding in the bus. She did have a cell phone though. Technocrats like pointing out how useful that cellphone must be to her in helping her keep in touch with her son who lives in a far away city. What they fail to realize is that her son was actually living with her or near her in the village with his extended family prior to moving to the city and there wouldn't have been a need for such a degraded level of communication that a cellphone provides if he didn't move out of the village. And the son didn't move out of the village to the city to become rich but to survive and send money back to his family to help them survive. He and his family's traditional livelihood was perhaps displaced by the effects of technology in the first place. This is the story of millions of human beings all across the world who are forced to migrate against their wishes to low paid "jobs" in the cities. Technology has been a cause of this trend for decades. For example, the likes of Monsanto have been responsible across the world for monocrops, farmer suicides and much upheaval in rural farming communities and ecologies. Bio-technology has been part of the corporate game plan to gain control over food. It's as if technology makes deep wounds and then provides a couple of band aids. It's much easier to notice the band aids but harder to see the fact that the wounds themselves were caused by technology in the first place.

Technology is fundamentally about control and manipulation. It's about transcending limitations and while there's nothing inherently wrong about transcending limitations, to do so by means of controlling the external environment is dangerous in the long run. We seem to have chosen to use more technology to solve the problems left behind by older technologies. This strategy is flawed. It simply compounds a bad situation and makes things worse despite how promising a new technology might appear in the beginning. If we view technology as control and manipulation, control begets control and it's a never ending problem. Human beings are an integral part of their host, the planet. They arise from it and dissolve into it. Their control of their host is proving to be disastrous. Again, to be sure, it's worth repeating that it's not all humans that are part of this game. It's a fraction, in fact. Those who seek control over fellow human beings and nature amass vast quantities of wealth, which is a proxy for control. They dictate the agenda. A number of us get sucked into their game because it benefits us in some way. Perhaps it offers us a way out of what we have come to consider as a backward and declining way of life (living close to the land and amidst nature and other beings). So we surround ourselves with artificial constructs, live in artificial environments, follow man-made laws and insulate ourselves from nature. Then there are the rest of us who can't or won't leave their traditional way of life and they end up suffering much as they find themselves oppressed by those who seek control and those who help the ones who control.

The sooner we, as a species, realize what technology really stands for, the sooner we will find out what to do to save ourselves and the planet.


  1. Thanks for this post. So many people are so pro-technology, it's helpful to be reminded of its downsides.

  2. I'm so glad you wrote this post, Kuku Mon. There is so much in there, tying together so much of what I've been thinking about ever since I started to wonder why things are the way they are.

    One other big problem with the way technology has advanced since the industrial revolution is that it has demanded an ever increasing level of specialization and through it produced a large number of people whose brains are preoccupied with one small aspect of maintaining the apparatus, unable to see or understand that there's a much bigger system of cause and effect within which your constrained reality operates. But it has transpired from our workplace into almost every aspect of life: food starts and ends at the supermarket, mobility starts and ends at the gas station, and our cyber life starts and ends at the on/off switch on the phone or computer.

    Technology itself has sped up our lives and obligations so much that most of us don't have the time, patience or curiosity to think about what has to happen for us to push that button on the laptop and communicate with anyone and everyone. Like you say, it takes enormous amounts of energy and resources to make that happen, not to mention the waste on the other end. (check out http://unu.edu/news/news/step-launches-interactive-world-e-waste-map-2.html#info)

    Thank you so much for this thought-provoking essay. If there were more of this depth and quality content promoted and absorbed on the internet, I would be much less skeptical about its overall trajectory.

  3. Well said, Sven... on the problems with specialization. Specialization makes the world more complex because the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. And a more complex world needs specialists. It's a spiral that results in such strange titles for high school students' class projects that might as well be PhD dissertation titles. I wrote a blog post on the topic of specialization here - http://goingkuku.blogspot.com/2013/01/highly-specialized-roles.html

    A line of trucks that runs three quarters of an equator.... Where on earth do we dump that amount of e-waste, year after year. And that's just the final product. We'd need to multiply that many times to account for the entire manufacturing process, from mining of the raw materials to packaging and delivery.

    Just heard this interview with Rebecca Solnit on the radio titled Technology and the West (http://www.againstthegrain.org/program/876/mon-20314-technology-and-west) where she describes how technology started remaking the daily grind of the factory worker 30 years before Henry Ford came along with the assembly line. Workers activities were studied closely to make them more efficient and productive and to be in tune with the machines they were working with. In this sense, technology remakes the world so the world would work better with it. People who think like machines are more valuable to a society that places such high value on machines and automation. In this case, I present my career as exhibit number one. It turns out technology doesn't have to come in the form of an out-of-control killer humanoid robot to make us wonder about our creative faculties. Instead technology creeps in slowly, over a hundred years, without much fanfare, integrating and assimilating human beings into itself, treating them as those of its own, bleeding out conscience and destroying humanity from the inside out. Technology isn't concerned with values and it seeks those who don't concern themselves with values. Science today is more or less divorced from its real-world implications. Science for the sake of science has become fashionable and while scientists prefer to stay apolitical, businesses pick up their creations and run with them and the the march of technology continues on. This is the danger of our time.

  4. "Instead technology creeps in slowly, over a hundred years, without much fanfare, integrating and assimilating human beings into itself, treating them as those of its own, bleeding out conscience and destroying humanity from the inside out."

    I often have the thought experiment of imagining myself being an Ohlone Indian in the East Bay hills before the Spanish arrived, one morning waking up and looking at the San Francisco Bay as it is today. Can you imagine the utter shock and terror? And yet, in 200 years, barely a blip in the history of homo sapiens, we've adapted to the radical alteration of the human and physical landscape, accepting the madness of paved over earth and carved up landscapes as if it was the most mundane thing in the world.

    Each new and celebrated technological invention has been more extreme in its impact on the land, from chemical fertilizer to the automobile to plastics. And yet we keep adapting to make the pollution they cause both physically and mentally seem normal and natural, a truly formidable act of mind gymnastics. My hope is that the breathtaking speed at which information technology is transforming all our interactions will spin our brains so fast that we will finally step out of the vortex of industrial acceleration that is now on the verge of pulling us all under.

  5. Yes. Entire generations have been raised in the past 200 years to see nothing amiss in civilization's quest for Earth's resources, and to see nothing wrong with strip mining, blowing up mountain tops, damming great rivers and drilling deep into the Earth. Soon after independence, the first Prime Minister of India said as much as "dams are the temples of modern India". India and other colonies of the European powers never really became independent of the ideologies implanted into their leaders and the middle classes.

    Along with this goes the thinking that nature is dangerous and human beings need to overcome the threats posed by nature to their survival and happiness. A truly formidable act of mind gymnastics, as you say, Sven. Unwittingly or by design, culture is doctored to make it all seem normal for humans to want to "transcend" nature. The idea that nature is dangerous and unpredictable to city dwellers is planted into our heads by such seemingly innocuous movies such as "Deliverance" and "Into the wild". That may not have been the filmmakers' overt intention but the effect on the audience is unmistakable.

    I'm reminded of a physics problem from high school. You're a train operator on an express train going at x miles an hour. You suddenly see a train ahead on the same track as you. Luckily, you realize that the train is traveling in the same direction as you and is just leaving a station. Say, the train ahead is at a distance of y miles from you and is accelerating at a rate of a mphh. You slam the brakes causing your train to decelerate at a rate of d mphh. Will your train avoid running into the train ahead or not? In other words, is your train's deceleration and the other train's acceleration large enough to prevent a collision? This seems to be our story today. We have increasing awareness of the big problems facing us down the road and we have certain tools at our disposal. Will we be able to decelerate fast enough to avoid a collision with an accelerating catastrophe? Too bad high school Physics can't answer this!